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Home Opinion Social democratic internationalism beyond the comfort zone

Social democratic internationalism beyond the comfort zone

Monika Sie Dhian Ho & René Cuperus - 17 November 2011

The internationalist consensus amongst social democrats is broken. By understanding the inherent tensions between global governance, national self-determination and democracy, social democrats can find new legitimation for an internationalism coherent with national welfare solidarity

For a long time, there has been little controversy within social democratic parties around issues of foreign and European policy. International cooperation, European integration, development aid: these goals were undisputed and not politicised within the centre-left itself. European and international affairs were more or less the exclusive habitat for experts, foreign affairs specialists, European officials and NGOs. International politics was warmly applauded at party congresses, confirming the feel-good factor of international solidarity.

This wide consensus about social democratic internationalism (the “silent convention” in the words of Olaf Cramme) has been broken. International and European affairs have become highly politicised, even within social democratic constituencies. A lot has to do with the populist ‘zeitgeist’ which dominates the public mood in large parts of Europe. Establishment consensus politics has been scrutinised and challenged by the populist revolt against ’elite politics’. The most affected polities seem to be international and European level politics, which depend most of all on a representative mandate of trust in diplomats, NGOs and experts.

The geographical and expertise-distance within international politics is in itself a vulnerability. It can easily be portrayed as ‘far from our own bed politics’ and as the realm for (progressive) academic professionals only. The right-wing populist Geert Wilders party in the Netherlands for instance constantly refers to European and international affairs as ‘’leftist hobbies’’.  Therefore, we are now witnessing harsh politicisation along three fault lines or fronts: 1. development aid; 2. international security (humanitarian interventions); and 3. European integration.

The most tragic is the erosion of international solidarity in the realm of development cooperation.  Nativist-populist resistance and the ever-increasing number of critical assessments highlighting the ineffectiveness of development aid undermine popular support, as well as the political self-confidence of the left. Books by Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion), William Easterley (The White Man’s Burden) and Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid) have led to an important debate on the productive and counterproductive effects of development aid, but have also given ammunition to popular and populist cynicism in regard to international solidarity.

Development aid is one of the symbolic targets which right-wing populists use against social democracy. It is portrayed as wasting tax payers’ money on the national poor of countries we don’t know and don’t trust, mediated through NGOs which we cannot trust either, because these NGOs consist of hypocritical left-wing ‘’caviar socialists’’, who travel ‘’first class’’  to the slums of poor Africa, settling in luxurious expat compounds.1   Development aid is suffering from a monstrous negative image problem. How can we bring facts back into the debate?

As a result of the post-nine eleven military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, international security politics has also become highly politicised. In the Netherlands for example the Dutch Afghanistan mission caused a schism within the progressive left. Important questions arise from the growing scepticism about the positive contributions military interventions could de facto make to security, good governance and democracy in the region. To what extent do corrupt warlords profit from such interventions? To what extent do the intervening parties become part of domestic, internal conflicts themselves? To what extent do international security operations abroad (out of area) contribute to national security at home, or do they even have a counterproductive effect, feeding home-grown terrorism? Recently, the Dutch Greens and social-liberal D66 supported a police training mission in the Afghan region of Kunduz. PvdA and the socialist SP opposed this mission.

The European Project has, in particular, come under political pressure. See the unexpected controversies around the EU-Constitutional referenda in France, Holland and Ireland, splitting the social democratic constituencies right through the middle. See the actual economic and political crisis in the eurozone, causing unprecedented tension between debtor countries and creditor countries. See the triple division between intergovernmentalists - looking for problem-solving capacity via a strengthening of the European Council -, federalists - who look for a strengthening of the community powers of the Commission - and eurosceptics, who fear the negative impact on the national democracy and national welfare state of a limitless European project.2   As a result, we are witnessing a forced return of the debate on multi-speed Europe.3 

The new politicisation of international politics is also a product of the overall political and socio-economic situation. In Europe, centre-right or conservative-populist governments have reacted to the financial crisis and the eurozone crisis with harsh monetarist-neoliberal austerity politics, putting national solidarity at risk. Within a populist zeitgeist, national austerity politics is narrowing the space for international politics and cooperation. Why cut down on the national welfare state arrangements, sparing international aid? Why keep up the appearance of international solidarity, if the appearance of national solidarity is brutally broken? To what extent is national solidarity a precondition for international solidarity?

Social democratic reactions to discredited internationalism

As a consequence of all this, the internationalism of social democracy has been harshly pushed out of the comfort-zone. In light of the new political context, we have to rephrase all conventional “standard” texts on European and international affairs in our elections manifestos and political platforms. We cannot simply copy and paste - at least not without more robust argumentation - the demand for 0.8% GNP to be spent on development aid. We cannot write without reflection that social democrats want, by any means at all, to maintain and strengthen the international rule of law – implying the use of military intervention if considered necessary. We cannot copy and paste our classical line: “we support a strong and social Europe.”

How do social democratic parties react to the highly polarised politicisation of international policy? Grosso modo, three kinds of reactions can be distinguished, all with new pros and cons. We distinguish: 1. The social democracy for globalisation; 2. The social democracy of national interest; 3. The social democracy hungry to tame capitalism.

Social democracy for globalisation boils down to a maximum international leap forward: total internationalism in order to adapt to the new global world order. Adapt or perish! Become a global player, or get totally marginalised! The EU should become part of the G2 of America and China, other interests should be put on second place. This approach leads to a turbo-deepening and broadening of European integration. A more unified Europe, speaking with one voice in the global arena, will be the only way to rescue European prosperity and European geopolitical influence in a global world with new emerging powers. This approach also entails a full commitment to fight climate change, leading to a strong reduction of CO2 emissions and a more sustainable economy.

The shadow side of the social democratic politics of TINA-globalisation (There is no alternative) is vulnerability to falsification. What if the alarming trend scenarios of globalisation, climate change, shifting powers etc. turn out to be slightly over-egged? And will the demand for one European voice in world affairs be feasible? And what are the cultural, political and democratic costs of enforced European unity?

The second reaction, is, what one could call, the social democratic discovery of national interest. Sometimes social democrats adopt the less enlightened variation, i.e. the blunt right-wing, ego-nationalistic concept of national interest: e.g. focusing on our contribution to the European budget. But there are also more sophisticated ways of finding new legitimations for foreign policy, based on a more enlightened idea of national interest.

The best social democratic example of that was the public debate on international affairs, which was organised in Norway by its social democratic government, under the heading: ‘Norwegian interests and globalisation’4. In its final report we encounter this more sophisticated approach: “The primary objective of Norwegian foreign policy is to safeguard Norway’s interests. In the Government’s view an interest-based foreign policy is one that is designed to systematically advance the welfare and security of Norwegian society and promote our fundamental political values. In order to pursue a targeted and predictable foreign policy over time, it is important that we know and are aware of these interests, and this is an essential point of reference for Norway’s dealing with other countries. Maintaining a focus on interests is also crucial in enhancing our ability to set priorities between various needs, strategies and choices of action in our foreign policy.”

Accordingly, these national interests get enlarged and reshaped to ‘’mutual interests’’, or ‘’common, shared interests.’’ National interest and international interests are interwoven, as are national public values and international public values: “As the world becomes increasingly woven together into one global society, Norway’s foreign policy interests can no longer be reduced to narrow self-interest. One of the consequences of globalisation is that Norway’s national interests and our political values are closely intertwined. Our foreign policy must therefore be based on the principle of ‘extended self-interest’. There are a number of examples of this: security policy is intended to ensure the physical integrity of the individual citizen and protect against threats and attacks by foreign powers, but at the same time it must also be designed to safeguard the principles of a liberal society, such as the rule of law and human rights, which play an essential role in maintaining peace between countries and preventing radicalism and conflicts in many parts of the world.”

Comparable to this approach of finding new legitimation, is the concept of ‘global public goods’, a central issue in Dutch policy reviews. By emphasising that issues like climate change and resource scarcities require globally coordinated solutions, it can be argued that this is in the interest both of developing countries and of the Netherlands (see the advice of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy: Less Pretention, More Ambition. Development Policy in times of Globalisation)5.

One of the problems of this national interest-perspective is that it narrows itself to an analysis on country-level only. International and transnational relations and trends are underestimated. It also tends to become a rather a-political approach, not putting into question the process of globalisation, nor criticising its polarising effects on different countries, economies, and groups of people.  Many problems are indeed caused by the unbalanced impact of globalisation, producing big inequalities and conflict potential between and within nation states. To confront these, a cross-national political approach is needed, not one of national interest only.

A third reaction can be found in a renewed ‘ideologisation’ of social democracy on an international level: using the international arena as the most optimal way to tame global financial capitalism. For many social democrats, the EU was meant to be a Rhineland buffer against global ’Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism: social Europe against a neoliberal world order. See the PES-manifesto of the European elections of 2007. As Olaf Cramme points out, “‘Market failure’ became the new prevailing motive, shifting the focus steadily from internal to external concerns. Neoliberal globalisation was the designated enemy.”6

But this strategy is not without problems either. To what extent, have Third Way social democrats and progressive liberals been accessories to the derailment of the international financial markets themselves?  See how the Clinton and Obama governments are accused of being in the pay of Wall Street.  On top of that, since the global financial crisis broke, social democracy reacted with plans like the Robin Hood tax and long term visions like the Green New Deal but has failed to come up with an encompassing, practical programme and a credible coalition for real change. Moreover such visions can mean little to citizens concerned with stagnant wages, job security and migration.

Sadder and wiser: a new social democratic internationalism?

All this being said - what should a renewed social democratic internationalism look like? Social democratic internationalism for the 21st century should be intrinsically motivated, directly social and democratic in its consequences rather than indirectly, and should be closely linked to the interests and values of our constituencies. We need to recast globalisation’s narrative, and show more respect to the conditions for sustainable solidarity.

- The prerequisite of intrinsic motivation implies that social democracy needs a positive narrative of its own. Sustainable engagement cannot be built solely on references to disasters that will materialise unless we do things we would otherwise be (intrinsically) reluctant to do (e.g. moving decision-making power away from national democratically legitimated actors to centralised, technocratic actors).

- Our internationalism should be more directly social and democratic of nature. For too long our internationalism has boiled down to ‘liberalism-light’, while we have invested our hope in the positive indirect spin-offs of economic growth for social democratic objectives. Indeed, the globalisation and financialisation of the economy has contributed to rapid economic growth, enabling social democratic governments to continue, among other things, financing strong welfare states. We should return to the historical mission of social democracy which is a critique of liberalism in practice. A critique of the instability, the manias and panics, of the capitalist system; of the inequality and exploitation that comes with it; of the neglect of core values like sustainability, social cohesion, and quality of labour, since they have no price; and of the diminishing autonomy of democratic societies to choose their own growth model and welfare state model in a world where financial capital can move freely in search of the highest short-term return on investment.

- Social democrats need a distinctive social and democratic conceptualisation of the national interest. Preoccupied as we have been with the conceptualisation of our global values, we have left the definition of the national interest to the right, resulting in an emphasis on the interests of capital. A social democratic conceptualisation of the national interest should emphasise human security at a decent level for all. That means: controlling and managing the crisis vulnerability of global financial capitalism; fighting the extremes of exploitation and exclusion, caused by this system; fighting race-to-the-bottom competitions in labour relations and social arrangements; and maintaining the capacity of national welfare democracies to uphold their social standards.

- The ultimate necessity is to uphold and defend parliamentary democracy against the standard reaction to the coordination problems of the global world: centralisation and technocratisation.

- The need for another idea and concept of globalisation. See Dani Rodrik7, who points to “the fundamental political trilemma of the world economy”:

“We cannot simultaneously pursue democracy, national determination, and economic globalisation. If we want to push globalisation further, we have to give up either the nation state or democratic politics. If we want to maintain and deepen democracy, we have to choose between the nation state and international economic integration. And if we want to keep the nation state and self-determination, we have to choose between deepening democracy and deepening globalisation. Our troubles have their roots in our reluctance to face up to these ineluctable choices.

Even though it is possible to advance both democracy and globalisation, the trilemma suggests this requires the creation of a global political community that is vastly more ambitious than anything we have seen to date or are likely to experience soon. It would call for global rulemaking by democracy, supported by accountability mechanisms that go far beyond what we have at present. Democratic global governance is a chimera. There are too many differences among nation states for their needs and preferences to be accommodated within common rules and institutions. Whatever global governance we can muster will support only a limited version of economic globalisation. The great diversity that marks our current world renders hyperglobalisation incompatible with democracy.

So we have to make some choices. Let us be clear about ours: democracy and national determination should trump hyperglobalisation. Democracies have the right to protect their social arrangements, and when this right clashes with the requirements of the global economy, it is the latter that should give way.

One might think that this principle would be the end of globalisation. Not so. Re-empowering national democracies will in fact place the world economy on a safer, healthier footing. And therein lies the ultimate paradox of globalisation. A thin layer of international rules that leaves substantial room for manoeuvre by national governments is a better globalisation. It can address globalisation’s ills while preserving its substantial economic benefits. We need smart globalisation, not maximum globalisation.”

- Human solidarity can remain the source and driver of an intrinsic motivation of internationalism. People want to do good. People want to help other people in need. That’s part of the human condition. But long-lasting solidarity requires fundamental and specific conditions, both within national welfare states and on international or global level. “Regarding the prospect for solidarity, research shows that most people are willing to engage in solidaristic cooperation for common goals even if they will not personally benefit from this materially. However, for this to happen, three specific conditions have to be in place. First, people have to be convinced that the policy is morally justified (substantial justice). Secondly, people have to be convinced that most other agents can also be trusted to cooperate (solidaristic justice), that is that other agents are likely to abstain from ‘free-riding’. Thirdly, people have to be convinced that the policy can be implemented in a fair and even-handed manner (procedural justice)”, as Bo Rothstein argued.8

- The global financial-economic crisis puts new pressures on international solidarity, insofar as internal solidarity within nation states is hurt and sacrificed by harsh austerity politics, affecting the middle class more severely than the affluent few.  For social-democrats the balance, the coherence between national welfare solidarity and international solidarity should be the core of their preoccupation and programme. No international solidarity without national solidarity; and vice versa. That is the new face of social democratic internationalism.

Monika Sie Dhian Ho and René Cuperus are director and senior research fellow, respectively, at the Wiardi Beckman Stichting, The Hague

1: Cuperus, R., ‘Waarom hebben populisten zo’n hekel aan ontwikkelingssamenwerking?’, in: Internationale Samenwerking, november 2010. (‘Why do populists hate development aid?’)
2: See Scharpf, F.W., ‘Monetary Union, Fiscal Crisis and the Preemption of Democracy’, LSE ‘Europe in Question’ Discussion Paper Series, May 2011.
3: See Cramme, O., The power of European integration. Social democracy in search of a purpose, Policy Network Paper, September 2011, p. 4.
4: Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Interests, Responsibilities and Opportunities. The main features of Norwegian foreign policy, Report no. 15 (2008-2009) to the Storting, click here
5: Scientific Council for Government Policy, Less Pretention, More Ambition. Development Policy in times of Globalization, Amsterdam University Press, 2010. Click here
6: Cramme, O., op. cit. p. 6.
7: Rodrik, D., The Globalization Paradox. Why Global Markets, States, and Democracy Can’t Coexist, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. xvii and xix.
8: Rothstein, B., ‘Creating a Sustainable Solidaristic Society: A Manual’, paper The Quality of Government Institute, Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, 2011.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Monika Sie Dhian Ho , René Cuperus , Olaf Cramme , Geert Wilders , PvdA , Dani Rodrik


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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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